We need another paradigm.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” — Albert Einstein
A science writer on Medium recently wrote about his conversation with a World Bank executive. In ten minutes, the banker convinced the writer that climate change was a devastating emergency, and that humanity had to make radical, expensive technological advances to save the world.
Well, OK. I’ve believed the ongoing destruction of Nature was the world’s biggest crisis for 40 years, and climate change is part of the crisis. Shouldn’t I be happy when our rulers start to take climate change seriously? Except I wondered: all my life, capitalists have been denying Nature and downplaying humans’ impact on climate. The data hasn’t changed. Why has climate become a big problem for them now?
But when I read the banker’s list of things we need to do, it all became clear. Virtually all his ideas would make billions of dollars for corporations. That’s why the World Bank, which has downplayed or contradicted environmental concerns since its founding, now sees climate change as their #1 issue.
Unfortunately, the bankers and industrialists can’t see that they themselves, with their economic growth models, are the cause of the problem. They can’t see that their technological “fixes” would make things worse.
Physicist Albert Einstein wrote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Einstein may have been one of the deepest thinker ever, but I never understood this quote until I read the banker’s list. Our rulers are saying we can deal with the climate and heal the planet using the same capitalist technological models that are killing us.
The bankers’ paradigm, or “level of thinking” as Einstein put it, is one of dominance. It says that people are not part of Nature, we’re smarter than Nature and know better than Nature what to do with the world. The bounty of Nature: the soils, waters, metals, plants, animals are “resources,” to be used however humans want. These resources should be used to profit rich people who somehow “own” them. Science and technology are tools used to help people control Nature, and in the process make more money for the owners.
Underlying this level of thinking is the paradigm of scarcity, described by Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money, as “There’s never enough, so I have to get mine, and more is better.” It’s easy to see how capitalism flows out of this paradigm; accumulation of wealth is always good and hoarding is perfectly logical.
When we look at the human dominance paradigm and the scarcity paradigm, we see another level holding them both up: what philosopher Charles Eisenstein calls “The Story of Separation.” At this level of thinking, we are each alone in an uncaring universe, and all we can do is protect ourselves and our immediate families with wealth and power.
This is the level of thinking that has created endless economic growth, which economist Herman Daly described as endless transformation of the living Earth into dead products, which are then sold, used up, and dumped out, creating pollution, climate change and the rest of the mess we are in today.
Here are some of their technological ideas and why they won’t work.
Whitening the air — spraying large amounts of light colored powder (called aerosols) into the sky to reflect sunlight, thus keeping things cooler. In some plans, sea salt would be the main cloud whitener, but others plan to spray powders, usually sulfates, silica, or aluminum, which eventually fall to the ground where they are toxic. They need to be replaced in the air regularly with new powders, a process that will never end. The world is huge, and planes will need to be spraying over the ocean frequently to keep the sky lighter.
Aerosols also have profound health effects on animals and humans. According to this article in Rolling Stone, aerosols “are one of the deadliest substances in existence, burrowing deep into our bodies where they can damage hearts and lungs.”
Is reflecting sunlight even a good idea? Sunlight makes the plants grow, so what will blocking it do to food production? What will it do to all the plants working to absorb carbon for us now? Research by the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory found that spraying aerosols reduces rainfall. So blocking the sun would be cooling, but would cause darkness and drought, leading to famine, as has happened after massive volcanic eruptions. The last thing we want is to make it harder for plants to grow, but that’s what aerosols would do.
Such strategies are called geo-engineering, trying to remake Earth to fit industrial capitalism instead of working with Earth as it is, literally playing God. Another geo-engineering plan is “carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).” While CCS is used on a small number of carbon-burning power plants to reduce their emissions, it becomes geo-engineering when corporations envision vast arrays of machines pulling carbon dioxide from the air and injecting it into the ground. The first such machines just came on line in Switzerland.
Where aerosol spraying is frightening, these carbon capture machines are just ridiculous. Their manufacturers estimate they could remove 1% of atmospheric carbon dioxide per year, but would need 250,000 arrays of their machines around the world to do it. And of course, the machines need to be powered and built, and what’s the carbon footprint of that?
Our unnamed World Bank official also said we would need gigantic factories on every continent manufacturing huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines to replace fossil fuels. Many Western “environmentalists” might agree, if we go by the content of the Green New Deal proposed by progressive Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But would massive arrays of solar panels or wind farms actually help heal the planet?
Probably not. When we study such green energy fixes, their downsides outweigh their benefits at large scale. Large-scale photovoltaic solar panels use a lot of space and are full of toxic chemicals. According to National Geographic, toxic chemicals in solar panels include cadmium, lead, gallium arsenide, copper, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, methyl chloroform,and acetone
Solar arrays require equally toxic batteries to store the energy, and need fossil fuel energy for their manufacture, according to Derrick Jensen, Lianne Keith and Max Wilber in their book Bright Green Lies.
Even companies that sell solar panels warn that they have a low energy efficiency, despite their high initial cost. Rain, clouds, winter, and high latitudes all reduce sunlight and thus solar power, requiring back up power for most uses. Photovoltaics can work on small scale in the right locations, e.g. rooftop panels in sunny climates, feeding into a larger grid or powering low-energy devices, but could never power an industrial society.
Wind power has similar problems. Windmills aren’t nearly as powerful as fossil fuels, so we would need huge arrays of them, using lots of plastic, taking up lots of space, killing lots of birds, and not even providing power on calm days. Windmills break down after about 20 years of spinning, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and need to be replaced. Many of their parts cannot be recycled at this time.
What about hydroelectric power from dams? Isn’t that clean energy? Not really. Dams kill fish, drown farmland and villages, and release huge amounts of the greenhouse gas methane from drowned vegetation.
Many other technological alternatives such as biomass and nuclear power are being proposed and used. All of them may have some benefits but definitely have huge drawbacks.
The problem isn’t the tech itself. It’s the level of thinking that gives rise to the technologies. In the long run, on large scale, they cannot work, because they come from the thinking level of dominating Nature instead of cooperating with it. At the Dominance, Scarcity, and Separation levels of thinking, material wealth and economic growth are the greatest goods and goals of our existence, and competitive capitalism is the best way to achieve those goals.
At this level, all the World Banker’s technological fixes make perfect sense, which is to say, they will make money for corporations. In their paradigm, that is how decisions are made. So don’t be surprised when they are rolled out. Meanwhile, the ideas of reducing consumption, sharing more, living in peace and working to restore damaged land and seas is simply unthinkable in this paradigm. Those approaches are not profitable.
Technology can be good
Technologies are not bad in themselves. They’ve enabled people to live better with everything from medical treatments to microwave ovens to the Internet. Used carefully, in support of natural processes, as is done in regenerative agriculture, a little technology might help. But in the dominance and scarcity paradigms, they are being used used to keep industrialism going and expanding.
All the renewable energy will not replace fossil fuels; it will simply be added on top of them to create profits. There will be more trucks and trains carrying more unnecessary stuff, more mining, more cutting forests, more plastic pollution.
So what level of thinking would enable us to use technology well, or to live without it? If we could get to a level in which we all, human and non-human, are in this life together, not trying for individual profit, could we then evaluate if a given technology is right for a given situation?
Others have said this before, like for at least 2500 years. People are supposed to devote themselves to their community, their world, and/or God, not pursue individual profit. Most of the world’s religions and indigenous belief systems profess something like this, although they don’t always practice it.
If we believed we were all in this together, we might use technology at small scale, and carefully observe the results. But far more important is to develop low-energy, low-consumption societies and lifestyles, to practice sharing, and make loving life our paradigm, not scarcity, dominance, and economic growth. That would be the level of thinking we truly need.
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